Now we have all arrived in the virtual world, some of us by necessity, others happy that the proof has been provided that mobile working is possible, although management and executives vehemently denied it. Studies show that the desire to work from home is higher than ever. But now it is also the case that many of us had to lead virtual teams from one day to another and with that all meetings took place virtually. Without much background knowledge about the specifics of virtual leadership or virtual meetings, we did our best! But very soon, terms such as zoom fatigue and zoom out appeared in online articles…
Studies show that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, with executives spending an average of nearly 23 hours a week in meetings, compared to less than 10 hours in the 1960s. And this number only includes planned meetings, not those that take place spontaneously and therefore maybe not even on the calendar. Already in 2004 Patrick M. Lencioni published a book with the title “Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable … About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business”, describing the meeting phanomenon with all its pros and cons.
“The hard truth is, bad meetings almost always lead to bad decisions, which is the best recipe for mediocrity.” Patrick Lencioni
Clearly: Meetings are essential to enable collaboration, creativity and innovation. We maintain relationships with colleagues and ensure a good exchange of information. The advantages are clear, but more meetings than we event think have the opposite effect!
During the first few months of the quarantine, there was an exorbitant increase in virtual meetings because we tried to ensure cohesion while all working from home, but also in some cases to exercise control.
Clearly, there is only one thing that is worse than a bad meeting: a bad virtual meeting! Therefore, it is now more important to work on a different meeting culture than ever. The first essential question, however, is always: “Do we really need this meeting?” We often schedule meetings, although the points can also be discussed and decided simply by email or Slack (or any other communicatin tool. An absolute NO-GO for me is having a meeting, just to have one. Here is a decision tree that should help you to know whether a meeting is necessary or whatelse you could do:
❓ Are we / am I going to talk about topics where the audience has no role but to listen? Better alternative: Send an email instead!
❓ Are we / am I going to talk about topics that are relevant only to a subset of the audience? Better alternative: have a smaller meeting!
❓ Are we / am I going to talk about activity and status updates only relevant to one individual and the meeting leader? Better alternative: use shared files or one-to-one calls instead
And if you know at the end that the meeting indeed is necessary, as follows, I would like to mention a few essential points for the preparation, implementation and follow-up of virtual meetings.
Preparation of a virtual meeting
Each team should also carefully think about the basic rules that apply to the virtual space and their virtual meetings. Are all my team rules applicable online, or what else do I need so that everyone has a common understanding of virtual collaboration/a virtual meeting?
👉 Structured calendar invite For each virtual meeting, I expect a calendar invitation in advance with a link to the virtual meeting room, the agenda items directly in the calendar invitation, or a link to the respective document and clarity about how much time is devoted to each agenda item, who may moderate it or what to prepare in advance. For me personally, video and audio quality is particularly important. When I work with new teams or participants I often send out the request for a headset before the meeting.
👉 Camera on? Yes, it’s basically good for the team because we see the faces of each other and that helps us to more easily create trust. But, I also think that we have to be aware that, on the one hand, the Internet bandwidth can thwart our plans. On the other hand, not everyone has the perfect home office environment and could therefore feel uncomfortable sharing everything that is in the background. Of course, most tools offer the option of using a virtual background, with the limitation that this usually does not work optimally if you do not have a proper green screen. Personally, I NEVER use a virtual background as it very often cuts your ears, hands or something else off and looks really weird, except for team building or other group-dynamic exercises, where it can be really a great tool.
Facilitation/Moderation of a virtual meeting
👉 Being present! One of the clear rules should always be that all team members “are really there/being present”. Unfortunately, in the virtual world we have seen an increase in other activities that are done while being on a conference call.
And it’s no wonder why! There is only one thing worse than a bad meeting: a bad online meeting!
We send emails, text with friends/family, are on social media, work on other projects, cook or do completely different things, while we should actually be concentrated in a work meeting. Our attention span has also decreased constantly in the last few decades, which doesn’t make it any easier considering the many distractions we are constantly facing!
👉 Don’t forget to check-in A phenomenon of virtual meetings is that either some of them speak at once or there is even a very strange silence until the meeting opens and the first item on the agenda is discussed. The bigger the meeting, the more difficult – no question about it. But what often happens in virtual teams: we forget these first 5 informal minutes, which usually take place in a physical meeting: the so-called check-in. I therefore usually advise including the check-in as an item on the agenda. There are lots of fun variations on what I could ask to get a sense of how everyone is doing. What are you doing there? What do you think of – please use the comment function!
👉 Moderation is of utmost importance For every type of virtual event, whether meeting or conference: the moderation makes the difference. This means, on the one hand, that the moderation skills of the manager, but also of each individual team member, are more in demand than ever.
What is important? Keep an eye on the time, also actively ask the group – pass the word on, summarize what has been said / write important points again in the chat, follow up, check whether everyone is still there and follow the argumentation / discussion. I find it very helpful when someone writes the minutes during a meeting and shares the screen at the same time. Sometimes people speak very quickly and taking notes in shorthand has the advantage that everyone can read along at the same time.
👉 Change of speakers For the dynamics of a virtual event, it is always good if there is variety. So also for team meetings. It often helps that there is always another moderator who keeps an eye on the time, and the taking of the minutes can also change. As a result, everything does not always depend on the same person and other team members can also practice virtual moderation, for example.
👉 Silent, but not muted: do we really all have to be on MUTE? Too often we mute when we shouldn’t, and we unmute when we shouldn’t. And that sucks the life out of our virtual meeting. Priya Parker (The Art of Gathering, https://www.priyaparker.com) recently wrote about this and triggered a great discussion. In my small team meetings, trainings, workshops or events, I always try to encourage everyone to turn on the microphone. Why? If someone is joking, we hear the laughter. If someone says something and others confirm it, we hear “Mmhmhm, yes …”. This brings virtual interactions to life and brings us closer together again. But I also must admit that this requires a rethink. I often find myself in meetings where I feel compelled to mute someone, for example because someone comes into the room and a conversation is started, which in turn disrupts our actual meeting.
👉 Virtual brainstorming: tools In the last few months we have also played around with tools that allow us to interact, such as mentimeter, sli.do, kahoot. Many of us already have more experience with tools for virtual collaboration such as Miro, Padlet, oder Mural. But I have to admit that I have been to more meetings where there were problems with these tools than in meetings where it was used well and that was mostly due to the moderators themselves. Of course, we all learn new tools, but I think Also, that we should now take the time to learn these tools from scratch so that I can moderate an energetic brainstorming session and not a brainstorming session in which I lose half of my participants at the beginning because access or the like does not work .
Follow-up of a virtual meeting
I know many organizations in which the minutes are made by hand (yes, also in virtual meetings), are digitized in a further step, are presented to the supervisor and go through an approval process, which in turn can take up to 2 months. Ie. Often, we get the minutes with possible important tasks, decisions only at a time when it could already be too late.
Therefore, extremely important from my point of view: Minutes are written during the virtual meeting, ideally also shared (screenshare option) so that you can read along and everyone has access during the meeting. Depending on the technology that is used, tasks can be assigned to people directly in the meeting minutes, with a given deadline and, at best, even linked in the company-wide / cross-team project management tool.
Conclusion Trust in virtual teams is of course a very important aspect; well-structured and well-conducted team meetings clearly contribute to this. I will take up the topic of how to build trust in an upcoming blog article.
💡 Resources 💡
Bob Frisch and Cary Greene (2020): What It Takes to Run a Great Virtual Meeting
5 Tips for Conducting a Virtual Meeting | Inc.com
How To Run A Successful Virtual Meeting – Forbes
How to Have More Meaningful and Effective Virtual Meetings, on Medium by Mia Scharphie
Leslie A. Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley & Eunice Eun (2017): Stop the Meeting Madness, Harvard Business Review July–August 2017 Issue, online here.
Steven G. Rogelberg, Cliff Scott and John Kello (2007): The Science and Fiction of Meetings, MIT Sloan Management Review, online here.
Gretchen Gavett (2014): What People Are Really Doing When They’re on a Conference Call, Harvard Business Review, online here.